Israel-Hollywood ‘Confidential’: The Secret Life of Arnon Milchan

A new book exposes juicy details about Hollywood tycoon Arnon Milchan, who has produced as prolific a list of hit movies as could be expected of any major studio: Pretty Woman, JFK, Free Willy, A Time to Kill, L.A. Confidential, City of Angels, Fight Club, Unfaithful and Mr. and Mrs. Smith are among the 110 credits I counted on (Read the list; it’s impressive).

But before he became one of Hollywood’s most powerful producers, he was an Israeli intelligence operative, leading a double life as an arms dealer who, according to the book, “Confidential: The Life of Secret Agent Turned Hollywood Tycoon Arnon Milchan” established front companies and secret bank accounts to funnel nuclear arms parts purchases to Israel.

In an excerpt published on The Daily Beast, authors Meir Doron and Joseph Gelman recount Milchan’s introduction to the Israeli intelligence world when he was in his mid 20s.

As Milchan grew [his late father’s fertilizer] business, he had come to the attention of up-and-coming politician Shimon Peres, who introduced Milchan to Benjamin Blumberg, nicknamed Israel’s “prince of silence,” the head of LAKAM (a Hebrew acronym for the Science Liaison Bureau). LAKAM’s very existence was unknown to the United States at the time.

Milchan’s recruitment in the 60’s was gradual. “It was almost a glamorous thing to be involved,” he acknowledged in a March 5, 2000 60 Minutes interview. “Everybody looked to me as a James Bond.”

According to the New York Times’ Michael Cieply, Milchan’s ties to the arms industry has long been an open secret in Hollywood: Milchan had “tantalized Hollywood with his dual identity as a producer of popular movies and a businessman tied to the arms industry,” Cieply wrote. But his work as an Israeli intelligence operative, whom Fox News described as “one of the most important secret agents that Israeli intelligence had ever fielded,” is the book’s main revelation.

According to the book, Milchan became vital to intelligence operations mainly for orchestrating weapons transactions that raked in “hundreds of millions of dollars in commissions that in fact would fund LAKAM and Mossad activities.”

It was May 1985 when Milchan’s ties to the arms business first became public. A Newsweek reporter called Milchan at his Paris apartment after Richard Kelly Smyth, the president of a California-based Israeli intelligence front company, had been indicted for shipping nuclear bomb detonators to one of Milchan’s Tel Aviv companies.

Milchan’s company had pushed him hard for the krytrons and knew perfectly what they were for—even though it was illegal to export them from the U.S. without a U.S. State Department munitions license. Milchan’s Heli Trading Ltd. had ordered 14 shipments totaling 810 krytrons from 1979-82. Now U.S. Customs and the FBI had moved in and the entire Milco operation was in jeopardy. Milchan feared that a politically ambitious and publicity-hungry U.S. prosecutor would come hunting for him, he told us.

After a short conversation with the Newsweek reporter, in which Milchan pleaded ignorance, he booked the first available flight to Tel Aviv. Within hours, TV crews were camped in front of his penthouse and the phone was ringing off the hook.

There was one call he could not avoid—from his mother, Shoshanna. “Everyone is calling my son an arms dealer,” she said, bursting into tears. “It’s embarrassing.”

Arnon was devastated.

“Mother, it’s not like I’m instigating wars in third-world countries and shipping them guns,” he told her. “I’m doing this to help our country.”

The book has also caused a stir for its celebrity gossip tidbits. One bit has Milchan on-the-record (he interviewed with the authors but did not officially “authorize” their account), talking about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s budding romance during the filming of “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” – when, as some may recall, Pitt was still married to Jennifer Aniston. According to the book, Aniston kicked Pitt out of the house and Milchan offered Pitt a room at his Malibu mansion.

One of the book’s more scandalous items is a part about Milchan closing down a Tel Aviv nightclub to impress a woman. For this exclusive, private party, Milchan booked one of Israel’s “up-and-coming rock bands, the Lions.”

The bass player for the band was a penniless, unknown, long-haired hippy, who later in life would become a multi-billion-dollar media tycoon in the United States and one of the largest donors to the Democratic Party: Haim Saban[.]

At the end of the performance, rather than invite the band to mingle with partygoers, Milchan banished them to the kitchen, which Saban has never forgotten. He told the authors: “We could only peek through the kitchen doors like lowly servants. We then went up and finished our second set and were escorted immediately from the club through the back door. That’s the way it was in those days, uppity Ashkenazim here, lowly Sephardim there. That’s how I met Arnon Milchan for the first time.”

Milchan, of course, remembers things quite differently. He claims Saban was trying to seduce the beautiful French woman he had been courting that night.

“[S]uddenly I hear behind my back a conversation in French. I turn around and I see Haim Saban, the bass player, chitchatting in French with Brigitte from the stage. Some kind of connection was made and I don’t understand a word of French, and she’s talking back to him and he seems to be charming her – the person I’m dancing with! Basically, he was hitting on her from the stage. So after the set I sent them to the kitchen. That was the farthest place from Brigitte that I could think of. If Haim Saban hadn’t hit on her, he would have stayed with all the ‘Ashkenazim.’ It’s that simple.”

The book goes from party scenes and Hollywood sets to Iran, the former Soviet Union and even South African apartheid, revealing the exhilarating if not divided life of an international powerbroker. Milchan’s gift for seamlessly skirting the bounds between entertainment and warfare as if all of his life played out on a movie set is perhaps his greatest talent. It is a wonder it was real.